Peter Lyons: It's unfair to be designated a loser by the lottery of birth'

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Economic thinkers in the mid-19th century regarded people with disabilities as the Darwinian losers in the economic survival of the fittest. Photo / Getty Images
Economic thinkers in the mid-19th century regarded people with disabilities as the Darwinian losers in the economic survival of the fittest. Photo / Getty Images

I am a partially sighted middle aged man. My eyesight is deteriorating. Sometimes I feel like a man on a rock with the tide coming in. There has been much recent media commentary about disability issues involving our treatment of disabled citizens and those who care for them.

I knew I had a genetic sight issue from an early age. My father had been advised not to have children for the risk of passing on the gene. I am relieved that he did.

The early manifestation of Retinitis Pigmentosa is night blindness and a loss of peripheral vision. I have a memory of chatting up a slim, quiet girl wearing a large hat at a dimly lit party in my late teens.

When I started getting amorous I realised the object of my desire was a lamp shade. In my late twenties I was a senior instructor at Outward Bound in Australia. I trained officer cadets for admission to Duntroon military academy. Night manoeuvres were stressful. On one occasion I ploughed into a tree and knocked myself out.

My squad continued on and I rejoined them in the morning. They assumed my sudden disappearance was a planned part of the exercise.

I lost my ability to drive in my mid-thirties. It was then I realised that my condition would shape my life. My cycling came to a halt several years ago when I encountered a closed gate on the Otago Rail Trail. The face plant was spectacular. Fortunately I was never a pretty boy.

My biggest concern has been my ability to continue earning a living. I am an economist yet free market theory says little about where people with disabilities fit into the economic system. Major disadvantages inflicted by nature or nurture are conveniently ignored.

Economic thinkers in the mid-19th century regarded this group as the Darwinian losers in the economic survival of the fittest. Vestiges of this attitude still remain. I take exception to this. It seems unfair that in an affluent society you are still designated a loser by the lottery of birth.

If a society offers a hand up to those who are not as advantaged as others, then we can all gain. Sadly our policy makers appear to have lost sight of this in their quest for economic efficiencies.

The media love to portray people with disabilities "overcoming their affliction". That is crap. You learn to live with a disability, you don't overcome it. You are faced with a stark daily choice. You can wallow in misery which is self-fulfilling or you can accept that life is not fair but you can still aspire to fulfil your potential. To maintain this attitude is a constant struggle but the alternative is worse.

I take consolation in the ancient Roman philosophy of Stoicism. It is a beautiful philosophy that is often misunderstood. The essence is that you do not have control over random fortune but you do have control over how you choose to respond to it. Attitude is everything but it requires constant effort and support. We often believe that others are living happier, more fulfilled lives than us. The reality is that no one gets through life unscathed by misfortune. This is what is meant by shared humanity.

We live in a society where self-reliance is regarded as a key ingredient to success. Yet none of us are truly self-reliant. Our lives would be much sadder and more stunted if we were. Some of this mutual interdependence is commercial but most of it is not.

It is based on a desire for reciprocity and a feeling that treating others with respect and decency is the right thing to do. It is only in recent years that I have been vocal in telling others that I have a disability. The support from family, workmates, friends, students and strangers has reinforced my belief that most people care.


Peter Lyons is a part time teacher at St Peters College in Epsom.

- NZ Herald

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